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The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way
by Keith Bradsher
Public Affairs, 468 pp., $28

High and Mighty SUVs

Tne day when Clotaire Rapaille was a child in France, he watched a huge American tank erupt from the woods and chase away a group of occupying Nazi soldiers. That image of glorious vehicular might stayed with him, and today Rapaille is the market researcher responsible for such SUV aesthetics as the Dodge Durango's massive grille, "resembling a jungle cat's teeth," and its flared fenders "that look like bulging muscles in a savage jaw." High and Mighty , by former New York Times Detroit bureau chief and long-time SUV debunker Keith Bradsher, abounds in lucid explications of the economics and seedy politics that put 20 million of arguably the most deadly and environmentally pernicious passenger vehicles on the nation's roads. But perhaps more striking is what Bradsher finds beneath all the mud (whether mud slung by the SUV's numerous critics or simply mud splattered everywhere in all those image-making ad campaigns): Like it or not, the SUV embodies just about all of America's deepest desires and fears.

Ford engineers took "the cultural pulse of the baby boomer generation," Bradsher explains, by watching Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV . The $9 billion auto-makers spent on advertising SUVs in the 1990s targeted the Explorer and its kind right at Americans' fears of crime, the elements, their own flawed driving, and their fellow man. ("Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain," Bradsher writes of industry research.) No image proved too absurd, not even SUV-as-the-ride-of-nature-lovers, a trope Bradsher says lulled many environmentalists for years. Few environmentalists were targeting SUVs before 1999.

Bradsher details how, behind the market-tested image, automakers have been dodging tax, safety, and pollution requirements, primarily by insisting that their most profitable products be classified as "light trucks" as opposed to cars. And he shows how politicians have been complicit, mollifying SUV-loving swing states in the Midwest as the objects of their affection have grown heavier, dirtier, and more menacing. What are environmentalists staring down this revved-up monster truck trend to do? Perhaps tapping Americans' deep desire for clean air and their fears of global warming could be a start.
-- Gillian Ashley

Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle against Pollution
by Devra Davis
Basic Books, 316 pp., $26

When Smoke Ran Like Water

D evra Davis reminds us that nobody knew from air pollution back in 1948. Residents of her industrial hometown, Donora, Pennsylvania, considered their grimy curtains and sunless days normal, even reassuring signs of progress. But that October, when Davis was two years old, they witnessed something infinitely more troubling: Noxious fumes from the local steel and zinc plants, trapped for nearly a week under a layer of cold air in the Monongahela Valley, blanketed the town so thickly people could barely see the sidewalk in front of them. The "death" smog killed twenty people and left thousands sick.

Davis grew up to be an epidemiologist and to gain an international reputation in environmental health. Now visiting professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, she has worked in one capacity or another for every president from Carter to Clinton. Davis's engrossing book chronicles pollution's hazy history, from sooty Dickensian London to car-crazed 1970s America and on up to the present. She is an epidemiological Agatha Christie of sorts -- although in these tales, frustratingly enough, the authorities don't always nab the culprit, even when the evidence is right under their noses.

Throughout, Davis drives home the point that statistics -- like the one that shows air pollution kills between 60,000 and 120,000 people a year in the United States -- aren't just numbers. They're us. And, for all our modern preoccupation with personal health, she observes there's been a grand failure on the part of society to think in precautionary terms about the effects of pollutants. Davis argues for a fundamental change to this approach: Manufacturers should have to prove their chemicals are safe before spewing them our way.

The shadow of big business looms large here, and the most unsettling points Davis makes are about consistent efforts by industry to undermine the scientific process. Time and again, the message to environmental scientists is: Don't ask, don't tell. (Early researchers who sounded the alarm about leaded gasoline saw their careers burn faster than fuel in an SUV's tank.) Yet with few independent institutions out there to assess environmental health hazards, the field is wide open for industry-financed groups (often with misleadingly friendly names like "Global Climate Coalition") to tap their own "experts" and influence major policy. This may be familiar news, but Davis convincingly makes the case that we should be gagging -- and not just because of the quality of our air.
-- Miranda Van Gelder

Blueprint for a New Environmentalism
by Allen Hershkowitz
Island Press, 281 pp., $25

Bronx Ecology

In 1991, Allen Hershkowitz had a big idea. It was everything a big idea is supposed to be. It was visionary and bold; it captivated the imagination precisely because of its bigness -- a broad sense of what citizens and their government can achieve together -- the kind of thing most of us only see in histories of the New Deal.

Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC, has spent his career figuring out ways to combat the rising tide of trash generated by consumer culture. After he hit upon his idea, the more he and others (including me, who consulted on his project) thought about it, the more perfect it seemed. It would restore an ecologically blighted site. It would not only create jobs in an area of chronic poverty, but the enterprise would be owned by the community itself. And, most importantly, it would prove that economics and environmentalism weren't mutually exclusive.

And yet, a decade later, we find Hershkowitz writing what amounts to a eulogy for his big idea.

Hershkowitz wanted to organize a recycled-paper company and help it get city approval to construct a recycled-paper mill in the South Bronx. He wanted to build a real-world solution to Barry Commoner's signature theme, that the most debilitating environmental impacts take place at production facilities and in their acquisition of raw materials. The Bronx Community Paper Company would address both these problems: The mill would be a showcase of the most environmentally sound industrial practices, and it would feed on a steady diet of recycled paper from Manhattan.

Hershkowitz wasn't a political naïf. He had gotten the executive branch of the federal government to commit to 20 percent post-consumer recycled paper. But fighting an army of mercenary corporate lobbyists in Washington proved inadequate training for the guerrilla politics of New York. Hershkowitz developed "a profound distaste," he writes, for "the sycophantic flattery demanded by certain elected officials and influential bureaucrats."

Bronx Ecology is a tangled tale of personal ambitions and greed: For instance, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani (whose main environmental priority seemed to be to imprison ferret owners) wasn't about to support economic development on the home turf of a political rival, the Bronx's Freddie Ferrer. And one community activist baldly asked for $70,000 to take care of "problems" as they came up -- then turned against the project when she was denied.

Stinginess and lack of vision on the part of civic leaders proved the project's ultimate undoing, and if it weren't for the writer's dogged spirit, this might be a depressing end to the story. But Hershkowitz has chosen to call his book a "blueprint for a new environmentalism," signaling that if the time wasn't right for his big idea yesterday, it might just be tomorrow.
-- Richard Schrader

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Vegetarianism: A History
High and Mighty SUVs
When Smoke Ran Like Water
Bronx Ecology

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OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council